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October 31, 2006

TED Prize 2007: A great prize deserves a great sculpture

Tom Shannon's TED Prize sculpture

The TED Conference folks have announced this year's recipients of their TED Prize, an a very impressive trio it is...

Photojournalist James Nachtwey
Biologist E.O. Wilson
Former President Bill Clinton

The three of them each get to address the ultra-exclusive TED conference, and present one world-changing wish that the attendees will focus their attention (and considerable wealth) upon. It's a great award (details here), won by three very deserving individuals, but what caught my eye was the other thing they receive... a commemorative sculpture by artist Tom Shannon.

The sculpture is a lovely ten-inch sphere that hovers in mid-air above a wooden base. It perfectly embodies the beautiful and improbable feel of the award...it's a thousand times more appropriate than the typical etched block of Lucite.

Shannon's made a number of pieces that use magnetic fields to achieve haunting levitations. Check out his online gallery at www.tomshannon.com.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 01:21 PM | Comments (1)

October 29, 2006

The Bomb Project

still image of A-bomb test

Looking for that perfect image of a nuclear bomb to accompany your latest bit of apocalyptic art? Look no further than The Bomb Project, your one-stop shop for all things related to the nuclear arms race.

The Bomb Project was created as a resource for artists who use nuclear-related resources in their work. The site has photos, video clips, and tons of documents and declassified files.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:40 PM | Comments (0)

Every polar bear in Great Britan

photo of a polar bear in Liverpool

People love to complete self-appointed sequential tasks...like visiting every Vermeer in New York, or reading every Lemony Snicket book, or seeing a big-league baseball game in every stadium, all in one season. (I once interviewed a guy who's spent years eating at every restaurant in Toronto. In alphabetical order.)

Add to that list the work of Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, who set out to find and photograph every stuffed polar bear in the British Isles. It took the pair four years to track them all down, some in museums, others in the castle manor houses of rich British nobility.

Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson's quest seems at first to be...well...kind of silly, but it calls into thought centuries worth of cultural interaction between civilization and the wild, of European's relationship with the arctic, of Victorian views of the conquest of nature, of the British view of their colonial Empire.

It's also led to a beautiful book of photographs, Nanoq: Flat Out and Bluesome: a Cultural Life of Polar Bears

You can also see many of the photographs on the www.snaebjornsdottirwilson.com website.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:47 AM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2006

Make your own snowflakes

sample of kapitza snowflake shapes

Ever since the astonishing early 20th Century photographs of Wilson "snowflake" Bentley(*), we've loved the intricate geometrical beauty of snowflakes.

If you're inspired to knock out some snowflake-based art, there's a great resource available. The British design house Kapitza has created EPS vector art of 30 different snowflake shapes. The flakes can be combined, colored, stretched, whatever. They're charging £18 U.K. for the set... order here.

Are you making some snowflake-based art? Leave a comment and let me know about it!

(*)There's a wonderful, award-winning, children's book about Snowflake Bentley, truly one of the all-time great amateur scientists. Perfect for kids of all ages!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:32 AM | Comments (2)

October 27, 2006

Clark Sorenson's flower urinals

flower urinal

Need to trick out that spare bathroom? May we suggestone of these beautifully crafted urinals? These custom fixtures are the work of Utah-based ceramics artist Clark Sorenson. Sorenson has created a variety of urinal designs based on different orchids, lilies, tulips and other flowers. There's also a couple of designs based on Nautilus shells. Prices run between $6,000 and $10,000 dollars. Check out the full line at clarkmade.com.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:45 AM | Comments (0)

October 26, 2006

Design a better radiator

photo of radiators

The basic design of the radiator hasn't changed for more than a hundred years. The British radiator manufacturer Bisque thinks that's way too long, so they've opened up a competition to design the radiator of the future.

Radiators are simple in concept, but the physics of rising air and cooling water impose some really tricky limitations on them (Bisque has a pdf explaining the issues), so don't expect to just sketch out some wacky new shape and walk away with first prize.

But if you can come up with something great you can score a 3,000 Euro first prize, and have your design on view in European design shows. Here are the contest details. But hurry! Registration for the competition closes on October 30, and you have to post your entry by November 10th.

(The contest is being put on in collaboration with the designboom industrial design website).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:23 AM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2006

Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition

image from Norman McLaren's Pax de Deux

Norman McLaren was a genius. That's not just my opinion, Picasso thought so too, as did Francois Truffaut. McLaren was an animator and experimental film maker who created works that destroyed the limits of what was thought possible through the medium of film. He would create animations by scratching shapes directly into the film emulsion, or use live models as stop-motion animation props, or create multiple exposures that used dozens of interlocking images.

McLaren was the founding director of the National Film Board of Canada's animation division (a post he held for more than 40 years) and under his tutelage the NFB became the place for cutting-edge animation. Along the way hewon an Oscar, a Palm d'Or, and a zillion film festival awards.

The National Film Board has just released a stunning, seven-DVD set of McLaren's work, titled Norman McLaren: The Master's Edition. It's my vote for the best DVD release of the year, well worth the $90 price tag (buy it on Amazon).

The NFB has also created a mini-site about the life and work of McLaren, and put some of his films online.

(P.S. The public radio program Off-Ramp recently aired a nice appreciation of McLaren).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:49 PM | Comments (0)

October 23, 2006

Palaeography tutorial

excerpt from an 18th century will

Can you understand any of the words in the image above? If you're like me the answer is "not too damn many". Welcome to the world of Palaeography, the study of old handwriting. That example above (part of the 1722 last will and testament of an English shipwright named Thomas Pike) was plain as day to people in the 18th century, but it's almost completely incomprehensible to most of us here in the 21st century. This is a big deal to historians, who rely on old texts as one of the main ways of learning about the past (My ex-wife, an European historian, could easily read marriage records from 15th Century Amsterdam. I couldn't even recognize the letters).

The British National Archives has a very cool mini site on palaeography. The site includes lots of tricks and techniques for deciphering old script and, best of all, interactive tutorials that let you try your eye at deciphering more and more difficult texts. It sounds uber-nerdy, but it's actually a lot of fun.

Kind of like studying history.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:46 PM | Comments (1)

October 22, 2006

Kite Power

artist illustration of kite power generator

While there's been growing interest in wind-power as a means to generate electricity, there's been surprisingly little research in how to capture the energy of the wind... pretty much everyone agrees that large, fixed, rotating blade systems are the way to go. But are there alternative methods?

Some Italian researchers think so. A company called Sequoia Automation has come up with an idea called the Kite Generator (KiteGen for short) that uses a bunch of mile-high kites tethered to a merry-go-round like contraption on the ground. Each kite's angle to the wind can be precisely and continuously controlled...kites in the downwind phase of their orbit are tilted to catch as much wind as possible, in the upwind phase they tilt down to easily slip forward.

A kite-driven carousel the size of a football field could generate half a gigawatt of power, and for about 1/30th the current cost of electricity in Europe (the researchers recently published a paper in the IEEE journal with the technical details. Here's a pdf). The researchers also say the kites can be quickly retracted if the winds die, or if there's an oncoming airplane.

Wired News had a piece on the kite generator earlier this month.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:57 AM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2006

Happy Lightbulb Day!

webcam image of the centennial lightbulb

There are no parades scheduled, but today, October 21st, is a date worthy of commemoration. On this date in 1879 Thomas Edison figured out the secret to the electric light bulb. Edison had spent months trying to find a workable filament material...one that would conduct electricity, that would glow brightly when electricity was passed through it, but that wouldn't quickly burn up or melt due to the high temperatures produced. Edison started out by trying platinum wire, and eventually tested scores of different materials without finding fit the bill.

At about 1:30 in the morning on this date, Edison tried a bit of carbonized cotton thread. He turned on the power and his light bulb glowed brightly...and continued to glow until 3 o'clock the next afternoon. This was a huge breakthrough -- within a year Edison had a bulb that could last more than 1,200 hours. (Typical modern incandescent light bulbs burn out a bit quicker than that, but they glow much brighter).

OK, 1,200 hours is impressive, but to be really impressed by lightbulb longevity, get yourself to the fire station at Livermore, California. Hanging from the ceiling in the fire engine garage, there's a lightbulb that was made in 1901. A lightbulb that's still glowing more than a century later! The bulb has been turned off a few times in the past 105 years, due to power failures and a brief period 30 years when the fire department moved to a new building, but it's been on every second since (they have it hooked up to a backup power supply to guard against future power outages).

There's a website about the Livermore lightbulb, and a live webcam so you can reassure yourself that the bulb is still glowing, at www.centennialbulb.org.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:55 AM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2006

Reuters assigns a reporter to Second Life

image from Reuters Second Life page

There's been a reporter covering Second Life for a while now, but now the big boys have stepped into the field. Yesterday Reuters announced that they've assigned reporter Adam Pasick to the Second Life beat. Within Second Life, Pasick goes by the name Adam Reuters, and he'll be keeping regular hours within the SL world. (Here's his schedule).

Pasick's reports, and other Reuters reports about Second Life, are all online at secondlife.reuters.com. They're also providing an RSS feed of their Second Life stories, and they've set up a virtual Reuters HQ within Second Life (SL users can jump to the site here).

Of course, all of this is indicative of the growing importance of Second Life and other online worlds.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:09 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2006

"No Time For Nuts" short online

still image from the No Time For Nuts short

For me (and lots of other cartoon fans) the best part of the Ice Age movies were the occasional appearances by Scrat, the crazed saber-toothed squirrel who's obsessed with finding the perfect place to bury his acorn. Blue Sky Studios, the animation house responsible for the Ice Age films, has created a new Scrat short titled No Time for Nuts and it's hilarious... Scrat comes across a time machine frozen in a glacier and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

No Time For Nuts will be included in the DVD release of Ice Age 2: The Meltdown on November 21st. But if you don't want to wait that long, the video has been posted to YouTube. Check it out!


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)

October 16, 2006

Aaron Koblin's flight paths

still image from one of Aaron Koblin's flight patterns

Beauty is where you find it. In Aaron Koblin's case, beauty lies hidden in the record of commercial air traffic. Check out the amazing, beautiful animations he created showing aircraft in flight.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:39 PM | Comments (0)

October 15, 2006

Another reason to watch what you say

photo by nathancallahan/flickr.com

We've all heard that phrase "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Well, it turns out that advice isn't just good etiquette, it's good science. A paper (pdf) in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology lays out some recent research into Spontaneous Trait Transference. Put simply, it's the phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others... tell your co-worker that your boss is lazy, and your co-worker will start to feel, perhaps subconsciously, that you're lazy too.

Conversely, tell someone good things about someone else, and the person you're talking to will start thinking a little bit better of you too.

(Thanks Tasty Research) (Photo: nathancallahan/flickr.com)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:33 AM | Comments (0)

Shut the #*@! hell up!

image of Revenge CD

Trying to make peace with your noisy neighbors may be well and good, but sometimes you just have to fight dirty. If that's the case, you may want to pick up the Revenge CD. It's loaded with 20 ear-splitting (power drill, drum being played by a child), annoying (whining dog, kid practicing scales on the violin), and impossible to ignore (thundering orgasm) sounds. A pair of earplugs is included with every CD. $18 from wishingfish.com.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:05 AM | Comments (1)

October 13, 2006

Another astonishing Cassini image

Saturn image from the Cassini spacecraft

A wonderful bit o'beauty for your weekend. The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn created this astonishing, beautiful photo of the ringed planet. The image is actually more than 160 individual images stitched together. There are full details about the photo, and large resolution versions, on the NASA/JPL website.

(Thanks BoingBoing)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:41 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2006

Vote for the People's Design Award

Cooper Hewitt People's Design Award logo

There's only a few days left to vote for the People's Design Award. The award is organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. For years they've run the prestigious National Design Awards, this year they've expanded things with the People's award, allowing we mere design mortals to speak.

It's a blast to browse through the nominees. People have already nominated more than 350 design artifacts...everything from the iPod to Veronica Lake's hairstyle (my personal favorite -- Curt Herzstark's astonishing Curta mechanical calculator). You can vote for any of them, or make your own nomination.

But hurry! Voting closes at 6 PM (EST) next Monday, with the winner announced next Wednesday.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

The Confluence Project

photo of confluence point at 48N 108W (Culbertson, MT)

There are two types of adventure exploration. The first is the "I wonder what the hell is out there?" variety. The Vikings fell into that category. So did Ferdinand Magellan and David Livingstone. The second type can be described as the "I'm going to set myself some arbitrary goal and then accomplish it!" school of exploration. Heroes in that second, equally honorable, school include Edmund Hillary, sailor Tristan Jones (a personal hero of mine, who once decided to set the record for sailing closer to the North Pole than any other ship had ever done. What happened to him is quite a story), and Admiral Perry.

The Confluence Project mixes both of those motives. The Project's goal is to obtain photographs of every spot on earth where a degree of longitude and a degree of latitude cross. Technically, there are 64,442 of those points around the globe. Most of them are spots on one of the world's oceans...the Project is ignoring those, as well as the several hundred that are all scrunched up together near the North and South poles. But there are more than 16,000 points on land around the world, and the Confluence Project folks want to bag photos of them all!

So far, they've snagged photographs of nearly 5,000 confluence points. As you would expect, the easy ones (such as just about all of the points in the lower 48 states) have all been done, but it's a BIG world, and huge swatches of Asia, Africa, and South America are wide open. Grab a camera and your passport and head out!

If you're a bit more timid, you can waste many hours looking through the images on the Confluence Project's website.

(The photo above is of the confluence point at 48 degrees North latitude, 108 degrees West longitude, near Culbertson, MT)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:28 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2006

Fruitree puts an end to rotting fruit

photo of ftuitree

One of my many vicious circles goes like this...
1) Decide to eat healthy.
2) Buy lots of fruit and other healthy foods.
3) Stick fruit in a big bowl on the kitchen table.
4) In a moment of clutter, set the bowl aside. Forget all about it.
5) Several days later, follow the swarm of fruit flies back to the forgotten bowl, now filled with a sickly sweet rotting goo that used to be bananas, oranges, peaches, and mangos.

One of the winners of a recent kitchen design contest may be just the thing for people like me. Fruitree is a concept piece designed to solve the out of sight, out of mind problem with fruit that goes uneaten and spoils. Fruitree is mounted on a wall, so the fruit is right in front of your eyes. Circulating air is pushed throughout the Fruitree, keeping the fruit fresh longer. Fruitree was designed by Chia Shee Loh, Antonietta Fortunato and Elena Godenzi.

[Thanks designboom]


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:19 PM | Comments (0)

Happy Powers of Ten Day!

still image from The Powers of Ten film

Today, the tenth day of the tenth month, holds special importance for both fans of science and of the brilliant 20th century designers Charles and Ray Eames (I fall into both categories). It's Powers of Ten Day, a holiday inspired by The Eames' mind-blowing 1977 short film of the same name.

The film starts with a couple enjoying a picnic in a Chicago park. The camera, looking down from above, begins pulling out and up until it reaches the edge of the visible universe. Then is zooms back in until the view ends up inside the nucleus of a single atom in the hand of one of the picnickers.

In addition to being the single greatest tracking shot in the history of cinema, the film gives you a wonderfully clear insight into the vast size of the cosmos. I don't know a single scientist or artist who hasn't been inspired and/or stunned by this film.

Today and for the rest of the month, the powersof10.com website has the film available for free on-line viewing(*). By all means take nine minutes out of your day to watch!

If you want more info on the impact of "The Powers of Ten", check out the appreciation of it I did for the public radio arts program Studio360.

(*) Email registration requested.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)

October 08, 2006

History of Malt Liquor

Colt 45 ad

One of the most fascinating things I've read in weeks is...of all things...a history of malt liquor. Freelance writer Kihm Winship, who often writes about beer & brewing, wrote a great piece outlining malt liquor's origins, history, and marketing:

Mandingo Malt Liquor was marketed as a tribute to the "The Great Mandingo Empire of Mali, 1240-1400" in a can bearing a map of Africa. But students of popular culture might also find it evocative of the 1975 film starring Ken Norton, about a well-muscled slave who is drawn into the thrall, and eventually the boudoir, of his white master's wife. The film gave its name to the phenomenon of white women being attracted to black men, especially if the men are as good looking as Ken Norton. This message-laden potion was brewed by Mandingo Beer Inc, in the state of Pennsylvania, a long way from the kingdom of Mali.

Another Hall of Famer is Johnny 3 Legs, introduced in 1995 and contract-brewed briefly by Stroh. This fabulously blatant reference -- to a man whose penis is so large that it looks like a third leg -- was sent into the marketplace with a cover story regarding a three-legged rooster. Well, what can you say?

You can read the full essay here.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:23 PM | Comments (0)

You can dress like the PC guy!

photo of PC guy John Hodgman

Just yesterday I blogged about how someone figured out exactly what clothes to buy to look just like the Apple guy in those Mac vs. PC ads. I also thought it would be great if someone figured out how to dress like the PC guy (portrayed by comic actor and author John Hodgman).

Ask and you shall receive! A reader (thanks Chris!) pointed me to this post on FashionistaTV.com where they give you the item by item rundown. Total cost: $156 bucks, including shoes.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:30 PM | Comments (0)

October 07, 2006

Battle of the album cover video

still from battle of bands video

Russell Davies pointed me to this crazy anarchic video. It's kind of like an ultra-bloody Kung Fu movie crossed with Terry Gilliam's animation from Monty Python. To top it off, the entire thing takes place within the scenes of album covers from the 70s and 80s. The video was directed by Ugly Pictures and shot/edited by Man Vs. Magnet. You can watch a QuickTime version of it here. There's also a YouTube version.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:54 PM | Comments (0)

Free-form advertising on a building in Amsterdam

photo of The Sandberg Institute building in Amsterdam

The owners of The Sandberg Institute building in Amsterdam want to pick up some extra cash, so they've turned the facade of the building into a free-form ad canvas. Each square on the building (about 10 inches square) cost 20 Euros per month. Since the building's ad contracts are as short as a month, it means the building's appearance is constantly changing. This is such a great contrast to the usual state of affairs with building murals and the like, where you better like what you see, 'cause it's gonna be there for the next 40 years.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:12 PM | Comments (0)

How to dress like the Apple guy

photo of actor Justin Long from the Apple TV commercials

Want to exactly match the appearance of the Mac guy in those Mac vs. PC ads? The LiveClever blog has analyzed the clothing that actor Justin Long is wearing. The full ensemble will cost you about $160 bucks, mainly because of the insanely overpriced $90 Levi's distressed blue jeans.

photo of the PC guy from the Apple adsOf course, what would be really cool would be if someone figured out where to get all of the clothes that PC guy (comic and writer John Hodgman) wears.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:01 PM | Comments (1)

October 05, 2006

How to sneeze video

still images from the Why Don't We Do It In Our Sleeves? video

With the fall cold and flu season upon us, public health officials are busy trying to teach us how to fight the spread of airborne viruses. The latest weapon in their arsenal... this wonderfully wacky viral video short from a doctor in Maine titled "Why Don't We Do It In Our Sleeves?" Learn why sneezing unto your arm instead of into your hands is not just healthy, it'll make you romantically irresistible. You can see it on the video's official website or on Google Video.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:33 PM | Comments (1)

October 04, 2006

Antikythera Mechanism conference this fall

photo of the Antikythera Mechanism

Just over a century ago, an archeologist investigating an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece made an astonishing discovery. Buried in the sea bottom, heavily encrusted with scale and coral, was some sort of complex mechanical computing device. The device, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, has been the subject of study and speculation ever since. With a creation date of approximately 80 B.C., it's one of the world's oldest known geared devices, with more than 30 gears, some of them in a differential gear arrangement that wouldn't be seen again until the 16th century. It appears to be some sort of astronomical calculator, used for figuring out the position of the planets, but there's no definitive proof of that.

CT scan of the Antikythera MechanismOr is there? Later this autumn there will be a two-day conference in Athens devoted to the Antikythera Mechanism. At the conference researchers will report on the most advanced analysis of the Mechanism ever performed, using X-ray based tomography, and on what the hell they think the Antikythera Mechanism was actually used for.

If you want to get the latest on the Mechanism (and you aren't planning on a trip to Greece at the end of November) you can sign up for the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project's mailing list.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:20 PM | Comments (2)

October 02, 2006

Lights out in Reykjavik

photo of aurora in Iceland by blue eyes/flickr.com

Reykjavik, Iceland is a city that's got its' priorities straight. Last Thursday night, street lights all over the city were turned off to make it easier for the residents to gaze up at the night sky. The lights out was organized as a way to kick off a big film festival in Reykjavik. Thousands of people went outside to gaze at the heavens, many of them listening to a live narration of the night sky being broadcast on the national radio network. Lisa Simpson would approve.

In case you were wondering, the Reykjavik police report absolutely no problems or crime caused by the outage.

[Photo of an Icelandic aurora by blue eyes/flickr.com]

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:34 PM | Comments (0)

October 01, 2006

Design Beck's new CD cover

cover materials for Beck's new CD, The Information

Beck's new CD, The Information, hits the shelves today, and this may be one new release where you want the actual physical artifact, not just the iTunes download(*). That way, you can make your own CD cover. The CD comes with a set of stickers and a sheet of grid paper, letting you create your own one-of-a-kind cover art. You can also upload your designs to one of Beck's websites for a chance to have your design used as the static image for later press runs of the CD.

Dmitri Siegel has a great article on the CD cover, and where it fits in the sweep of modern art, on Design Observer.

(*) Of course, if you're righteously angry about Apple's DRM, you've already passed on iTunes purchases.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:54 PM | Comments (0)

Video (kind of) of my Google talk

photo of Chris Spurgeon speaking at Google

Even their unparalleled technical expertise wasn't enough to help Google when I showed up at their headquarters earlier this week to give one of their Tech Talks. It turns my jinx ability was in full effect, and the guy running the AV system forgot hit the "Record" button on the video recorder until half-way into my talk. But the video of the second half of my talk on the great geohacks of the last 3,000 years is available now on Google video.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 02:36 PM | Comments (0)

The iBar illuminated bar

photo of iBar interactive bar

My brain is sufficiently simple to make me happily stare at pretty much any changing pattern of light. Add alcohol to the mix and I am totally on board. So I would no doubt spend many happy hours hanging in a bar equipped with the iBar interactive bar counter. Any object that touches the bar (a glass, an ashtray, a patron's hand) generates a soft glow within the bar surface. Lines of light shoot through the bar connecting the objects in constantly changing patterns. The photo gives you a little taste of what it's like, but you really need to watch the video to get a full sense of the thing in action. The iBar is the work of a British company called Betaminds, which has made a number of clever and beautiful interactive systems.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:56 AM | Comments (0)